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Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, shelves were bare for many products. Good luck to anyone trying to get Lysol wipes, or hand sanitizer, or heaven forbid toilet paper. The world had shut down, everything was in disarray, including the ability to produce and distribute a number of important goods.
Gradually, we adapted. Toilet paper manufacturers changed to produce more home-use tissue and less of the stuff you find in public or commercial restrooms. (This piece by Terry Nguyen at Vox lays out what that transition looked like.) Distilleries shifted from production of booze to production of hand sanitizer, though this New York Times piece by Kellen Browning highlights the issues many distilleries encountered in the process. Yes, it was frustrating, but also somewhat understandable: we were in the midst of a global economic shutdown resulting from the spread of a novel coronavirus about which we knew extremely little.
It is not April 2020 anymore. It is January 2022. The world is not "back to normal" per se - schools and daycares are still closing at the drop of a hat, the tourism and hospitality industries are still experiencing disruptions, our health care system is being strained in some places because of the new variant - but people are rightly less forgiving of things being "out of whack" this far into the COVID-19 crisis.
This weekend, Americans across the country - but particularly in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast - walked into grocery stores and found shelves that were relatively bare. (I was among them: my "quick trip to the store" to grab scallions and potatoes morphed into a multi-stop fruitless - pun partially intended! - quest.) The Associated Press reporting on the problem points the finger at a mix of Omicron-related staffing shortages and weather-related shipping delays.
Not being able to pick up green onions or a fresh sleeve of eggs for a few days wasn't the end of the world; I was still able to grab a tub of cookie dough and a frozen pizza. I got chicken wings instead of chicken thighs. I'll live! But at a certain point, "sorry the pandemic is causing all these problems" stops being an adequate excuse - particularly for political leaders. Back in May 2020, then-candidate Joe Biden tweeted "We don't have a food shortage problem - we have a leadership problem."
Surely, the White House today would argue that there is no "leadership problem" at all. And yes, presidents get blamed for all manner of things out of their control all the time. But when the precedent is set to blame the person in charge for rising COVID cases or food shortages, when you're in charge, the same rules apply. And nearly two years further into the pandemic, I expect voters to be much less likely to give a leader the benefit of the doubt.
Compounding this problem is the news today that inflation year-over-year is a whopping 7 percent. Most Americans didn't need a government analysis to tell them this, they've been reporting higher prices as a problem in my polling for months now. But as the BBC notes, this is unprecedented in the lifetimes of anyone who is a Millennial or younger, as "US consumer prices rise at fastest rate in nearly 40 years."
Over the last year, a variety of pundits and economists have said that actually inflation is good because it's just a sign of people having money to burn. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain got into some hot water for promoting the idea that inflation is a "high class" problem. Today, I particularly enjoyed this post (which will mostly be funny to people who both follow economics news and watched WandaVision) from Bloomberg's Joe Weisenthal today:
Late last year, my firm's polling (written up here in The New York Times) found the vast majority of Americans wanted leaders focused on fixing the problem of cost of living rather than focusing on new spending programs. This was from before the Omicron variant left a trail of destruction across America's workforce with people having to call out sick in huge numbers.
Democrats argue that this is all temporary and that the underlying economics are sound. But "things are better than you think, we promise!" is a dicey message to take to voters. And as research from UCLA's Lynn Vavreck shows, while objective economic conditions play a role hand-in-hand with perceptions of economic conditions during presidential elections, in a midterm year it is how people perceive the state of the economy - something that is linked to partisanship - that is in the driver's seat.
Even if the economy is better on paper come November, all it may take are some not-too-distant memories of sticker shock or empty shelves, tinged with a little partisanship, for people to feel more inclined to put the other team back in charge.
Thanks again for being a reader of Codebook. Did you decide to go ahead with a resolution for 2022? Hop to the comments to start the discussion.
You can also catch my weekly radio show, "The Trendline", on SiriusXM P.O.T.U.S. Channel 124 airing Saturdays at 10 AM Eastern.
(Cover Photo Credit: Kristen Soltis Anderson, at the grocery store January 9, 2022.)